If you have ever found yourself in the middle of a recipe staring at your spice rack and wondering if paprika can be used in place of cumin, then this post is for you! We will cover everything to do with cumin vs paprika, including the similarities, the differences, and some ways to use these amazing spices!
Cumin vs Paprika - Are they similar?
Sort of! Both of these spices are known for their smokey and earthy flavor profiles. Paprika is stark red and mild, while cumin is brownish-yellow with a strong flavor. And yes, they can be used in place of each other! But, to really understand cumin vs paprika, we need to fully understand what each of these spices are (this is your cue to keep reading!).
What is cumin?
Cumin is an ancient spice grown in Egypt and the Middle East. It is the dried seed of the cuminum cyminum plant and has a warm, earthy flavor with a musky scent. These small, boat shaped seeds are harvested by hand. The most common variety is brownish-yellow in color, but some other varieties include black cumin, green cumin, and white cumin.
It has been found in excavation sites in Syria that date back 4,000 years, it was used as a spice and as an element in preserving mummies, and it appears in both the Old Testament and the New Testament.
It also has an extensive history in Indian cuisine and made its way to Mexico and South America by way of the Spanish and Portuguese. Today, it can be found in chili powder, garam masala, curry powder, and many other spice blends. It is a staple of Mexican and Middle Eastern Food.
It can sometimes be confused with its cousin, coriander. And well these two spices taste wonderful together, they have very different profiles. Coriander is light with a slight lemon flavor while cumin is warm with a slight smokiness.
What is Paprika?
Paprika is a combination of dried hot and sweet peppers resulting in a striking red color. Red paprika originated in Southern Mexico, Central America, and the Antilles Islands where it was used for food and medicine (high in vitamin C!). It is said that Christopher Columbus introduced it to Europe and it then made its way to Hungary, where it has been a staple ever since.
Today, it is made in Hungary, Spain, South America, the Mediterranean, India, and California and can be either sweet, hot, or have a smoky flavor. It was not used in the West, however, until the mid-1900’s.
It is a staple of kitchen cupboards and is used in many different ways. It can be used as a flavor enhancer, as a garnish, as a dye for food or fabric, and even in the food of flamingos to keep them bright pink!
Types of Cumin:
As mentioned above, there is brown-yellow cumin, black cumin, green cumin, and white cumin. It can be found as whole or ground. Whole cumin is often featured in Indian dishes by cooking them in oil before adding other ingredients.
Cooking cumin in oil or toasting the seeds are both ways to enhance the flavor. Ground Cumin is what is found in spice mixes. While heat can intensify the flavor of cumin, either ground or whole seeds can be added to a dish at any time to infuse flavor.
Types of Paprika:
There are 3 main varieties of paprika: regular (or sweet), Hungarian, and Spanish. Sweet paprika is the most common type of paprika. It is used to finish deviled eggs and eggs benedict and to add color to spice rubs.
Hungarian Paprika comes in 8 grades.
Bright red and no heat
Half sweet, half spicy
Delicate and mild
Delicate and pungent
Delicate and hot
Mild and orange in color
Hot and brown in color
Spanish paprika also has variations including a sweet flavor, spicy, sweet and spicy, and smoked. The peppers are dried over open fires giving it the smokey flavor.
How to use Cumin:
Cumin has a very distinct earthy flavor. Certain dishes, like enchiladas or curry, will always taste flat without a certain amount of cumin. Either ground or whole cumin can be used in recipes, regardless of what the recipe calls for, as long as you know how to use each.
As mentioned above, whole seeds are often added at the beginning of a recipe in order to infuse the flavor. Whole seeds have a more muted flavor than ground cumin, hence why it is helpful to toast or infuse whole seeds prior to making a recipe. Whole seeds can also be lightly toasted in a dry pan and then ground using a mortar and pestle or food processor to make your own ground cumin.
Ground cumin can be added directly to a recipe at any time due to its concentrated flavor. So, you can use cumin however you want as long as you understand the difference between whole seeds and ground.
How to use Paprika:
Paprika can be used in nearly any dish, as a garnish or flavor enhancement. Due to the wide range of paprika varieties, the type of paprika you have or buy will determine how you use it.
If you have a sweet or mild paprika, this is best used as a garnish or dye for foods or fabric. It will add color without overwhelming the flavors. If using a Hungarian or Spanish paprika, it is best used in dishes that will benefit from some heat or smokeyness.
Some examples would be fish or chicken since they take on and benefit from strong spices. While paprika can be added directly to a dish, it should be cooked in a small amount of oil first to bring out the true flavor. BUT! Cooking it runs the risk of overcooking (even by only a few seconds) which will turn it bitter and unpalatable.
Regular paprika is often seen and not tasted, hence why it is used as a garnish, but when treated correctly and using the correct variety of paprika, it is a flavor explosion!
Chili Powder vs Paprika
While both chili powder and paprika are made up of a variety of peppers and are both red in color, they vary greatly in taste. So what exactly is the difference between chili powder and paprika?
Chili powder is a spice blend and typically contains paprika (red color!), garlic powder, oregano, chili peppers, and onion powder. As discussed above, paprika is a combination of very specific peppers.
Paprika will always have a slightly sweet taste while chili powder is more earthy with a kick of spice. Chili powder can be an ideal substitute for paprika but only in recipes that will not be over powdered by the addition of the garlic and onion from the chili powder. Start with half the amount of chili powder in place of paprika and increase to suit your taste.
Some recipes that would still be delicious if subbing chili powder for paprika are empanadas, chili, and huevos rancheros. If you are looking for a good substitute for chili powder, cayenne powder, or spicy paprika combined with garlic powder and onion will work great!
Because chili powder typically has a very small amount of paprika in it, start by adding ¼ of the paprika to the dish and then add more to adjust to the desired taste. You can also make your own with a recipe like this one.
Substitutes for Ground Cumin:
All quantities are starting points. Add the suggested ground cumin substitute amount, taste, and adjust to fit your taste preference.
Whole Cumin Seeds: 1 ¼ times
Ground Coriander: ½ of what’s called for
Ground Caraway Seeds: ½ of what’s called for
Paprika: ½ of what’s called for
Fennel Seeds: ½ of what’s called for, these have a very similar flavor to licorice so be aware of that before using this as a substitute
Chili Powder: ½ of what’s called for, this should only be used to substitute cumin in recipes that can also benefit from the other spices in chili powder (oregano, paprika, and cayenne). Some examples would be enchiladas, tacos, or chili.
Taco Seasoning: ½ of what’s called for, this follows the same principles as chili powder - only use it when it makes sense. Taco seasoning also has varying amounts of salt and black pepper so we recommend adding it before adding any additional salt to a recipe to avoid over salting.
Curry Powder: ½ of what’s called for, this is a great substitute for Indonesian and Malaysian style food, but it is a combination of 20 different spices so it should only be used when it makes sense. It also has turmeric in it so curry powder will turn any dish yellow
Garam Masala: ½ of what’s called for, this is a combination of many different spices also so it should only be used in dishes that will benefit from the additional flavors. This works best in Indian and South African style dishes.
Substitutes for Paprika:
Always start with ½ of the called for quantity of the substitute, taste and then adjust accordingly.
Hot Paprika: chipotle chili powder, cayenne pepper powder, ancho pepper powder, red pepper flakes, guajillo pepper powder, chili powder (start with ¼ tablespoon and see above for more information on substituting this)
Sweet Paprika: tomato powder or mild chili powder
Smoked Paprika: cumin powder, chipotle powder
Conclusion: Cumin has an earthy flavor that is usually found in Indian or Mexican dishes. Paprika can have a sweet, spicy, or smokey flavor and is known for its stark red color. It is usually found in Spanish, Mexican, or Hungarian dishes. Smoked paprika and cumin can be used as substitutes for each other. But, sweet or spicy paprika should not be used as or be replaced by cumin due to their very different flavor profiles.